Inside view Society

When memory plays tricks

Forgetfulness is the name of the game

Forgetfulness is the name of the game   | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

All ears for a trip down memory lane

“My memory, my memory!” I moaned, peering into the cupboard.

“Why, do you think it could be lying hidden inside?” My husband wisecracked.

“Funny!” I replied, wondering for the nth time why I had opened the cupboard in the first place. To get something from it, no doubt, but what that something was, I just couldn’t recall.

I don’t know about you, but this happens very frequently to me. I spend so much time in front of the open fridge, kitchen cupboards, almirahs, book shelves and drawers trying to remember what I’d come for, that I’m sure if I timed myself, I would be a prime contender for the Guinness Maximum Time Spent In Front Of Cupboards Wondering Why You Were Standing There Scratching Your Head record.

“Don’t know what you came looking for?” This time my husband’s guess was correct. “Haha, not to worry, happens to everybody. And to a chosen few, more than to others,” he added, rummaging through the adjacent cupboard. He moved away and began navigating to the door with a cheerful, “Bye!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I have a class today. Forgotten that too?” He grinned. “You’re getting good at this.”

“And you’re getting better. You’ve forgotten your shirt.” It was my turn to grin. I looked at him, all set to go for his class, a brilliant lecture in his head but no shirt on his person and stopped worrying about memory playing hide-and-seek.

That evening something happened that was even more reassuring. A friend sent the link to an old Mohammed Rafi song, The She I Love... a rare one that he had sung in English to the tune of a popular Hindi number. Believe it or not, the moment I saw the title, every single word of the song I had totally forgotten for years came back to my mind as if it had been photocopied into my memory. I began to hum, The She I love is a beautiful , beautiful dream come true.., mentally giving my memory appreciative pats on its back.

But the tune got stuck in my head and soon began to irritate me. I remembered my husband mentioning a word to describe a song or a tune that keeps repeating in one’s mind. My memory let me down again for I couldn’t remember the word but I knew there was a worm in it. The moment he returned from his class, wondering what was for tea, I asked, “It’s earthworm, isn’t it?”

“For tea?” He looked appalled.

“No, no, the word that means having a song in your ear that keeps playing continuously. I thought you said it was some worm. Earthworm?”

“Earthworm? How can an earthworm be in your ear? Use your common sense.” His hunger made him brusque. I protested it wasn’t impossible to have an earthworm in your ear. “It could always be put there,” I said, for the sake of argument. “Not the nicest of prospects but definitely possible.” He didn’t give ear to my words and continued from where he had left off. “It’s called ‘earworm’,” he said, heading for the dining table.

Ah, earworm, that’s it. While he had his tea, I found out more about the yucky, unattractive word. It was a very old word in English but had been used to refer to the earwig that was erroneously believed to get into people’s ears. In most languages, the earworm had meant that until it began to be used to allude to a pest that infected ears of corn. In the 1960s, the Germans, with typical German acumen, applied the word ‘ohrwurm’, meaning ‘earworm’, to describe any irritating or catchy piece of music that burrowed into your head and got fixed there. The English found the expression appropriate and appropriated its literal translation for the purpose so that, in the ‘80s, the re-invented “earworm” wiggled its way into the English language.

Pleased with my new knowledge, I reported my findings to my husband and followed that with the reason for my sudden interest in the word. “It all started with The She I Love..., my new earworm.” And just to prove I remembered it verbatim, I sang the whole song, totally off-key, to him. “That song is plaguing me now,” he grumbled at dinner, glaring at the she he loved as if she was a nightmare. I was at the fridge, wondering what I wanted from it. “Beat it!” I exclaimed, singing my latest earworm, and took an egg out.

A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academician and author of the Butterfingers series. khyrubutter@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 5:57:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/when-memory-plays-tricks/article20510663.ece

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